#ET821 What kind of education for what kind of development?

This is the first blog post for activity 1.1 in ET821 (Education for Development) at the Open University (UK).  Comments are, as always, warmly appreciated.

Development is a broad concept that may mean different things to different people.  It can be interpreted as a vision of a desirable society (‘developed nation’), as a historical process (‘development of a country’) or as a series of actions (‘doing development in a country’) (Thomas, 2000).  Most people would agree nowadays that industrial development and economic growth are cornerstones in the development of a country. On how this can be achieved opinions diverge.

The traditional debate between neoliberalism (popular during 1980s) and structuralism (popular during 1970s) focused on the need for capitalism versus state planning to achieve economic growth.  Current debates centre more on the degree and form of state intervention.  Keynesian policies to prop up demand, create employment and restore confidence in times of crisis. Protecting nascent industries from external competition through import tariffs or state subsidies.  Creating a welfare safety net for those who lose in the capitalist jungle.  Or limiting negative effects on externalities such as environmental quality.

However, economic growth (or GDP per person) is arguably not the only determinant of development. The UN’s Human Development Index takes life expectancy and mean and expected years of schooling into account.  Sen (1999) argues that these are not just important because of their positive effect on economic growth, but as constituent elements of development themselves.  Development for him is the expansion of substantive freedoms through elimination of sources of un-freedom such as lack of access to health or education, and political and social barriers.   Education not only serves to promote economic growth, but has positive effects on other freedoms such as health, political freedom and social inclusiveness.  Moreover, access to education is a freedom in its own right, helping people to fulfil their potential.  He distinguishes human capital (productive abilities) from human capabilities (ability to lead different types of lives), the latter being the fundamental aim of development.

I would argue that expanding these freedoms requires a strong form of capitalism, creating a ‘level playing field’.  The problem in Cambodia is that political and business elite distorts capitalism through monopolies, price controls, import tariffs, lack of good quality public education and health systems, rejecting juridical and media independence etc.  For example, good quality education is only available in expensive private schools (and abroad), protecting high-quality jobs for the happy few who can afford such an education.

The vision on development has implications on the kind of education system we want. An education system that primarily supports economic growth focuses on employable knowledge and skills, standardisation and early classification of pupils.  A system that focuses on empowering people’s potential will have a broader curriculum, invest in non-employable skills such as arts, support differentiation and give special attention to pupils with disabilities.  It’s hard to say which one is best.  Cambodia has been growing at rates close to 10% for the last decade, society is changing at breakneck speed and living standards between what parents and children have been used to is enormous.  In that regard, it might not be surprising that students tend to see business, marketing, ICT and engineering as the only study options, rather than humanities or exact sciences.  They take extra lessons to improve in skills that they hope will improve their chances to participate in the growth rollercoaster such as English, Korean or Mandarin, and presentation skills.


  • Thomas, A. (2000) ‘Meanings and Views of Development’ in Allen, T. and Thomas, A. Poverty and Development into the 21st Century, Oxford, OUP and The Open University, pp. 23–48.
  • Sen,A. (1997) Editorial: Human Capital and Human Capability, Word Development, 25(12), pp. 1959-1961
  • Sen, A. (1999) Development as Freedom, Oxford, OUP, pp. 3–12

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